The Three Angels at Sodom

In the stories of Abraham and Lot we can see two sides of a single prophecy. On the one hand is Abraham, through whom would come Israel, the Torah, and the Messiah. The whole world would be blessed through him and a portion of it would ultimately be saved. On the other hand is Lot, through whom at least Sodom could have been saved. But instead of preaching righteousness, he tried to be one of them without being like them. God had given him an opportunity to build the Kingdom through the witness of his words and righteous life, but he squandered the opportunity and lost even his own family.

See The Roles and Fields of Righteous Men for more on the contrast between Lot and Abraham.

There are some interesting patterns in the behavior of the three angels who came to judge and execute Sodom.

Genesis 18:1-2 present us with one mystery.

Recall the pattern of Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, Moses gave us a broad overview of the 7 days of creation. In Genesis 2, he zoomed into a subset of events that took place within those 7 days. They aren’t two contradictory accounts, but a single account told from two perspectives. The same thing happens in here. Verse 1 says that YHWH appeared to Abraham, and then verse 2 says that three men appeared to him. There aren’t four men here. Moses gave us a summary first, saying that YHWH appeared. Then he zoomed in and gave us another perspective on the same event: YHWH appeared to Abraham as three men. There is only one God; he is not three separate Gods. So what are we to make of this?

We will have to be content with a certain amount of mystery; we can never fully comprehend God. When he appears to men, we only see part of him. If we were to see him in all his glory we would die. So when we see him, we see him as the ten blind Indian men saw the elephant: a small part at a time, seeming to be one thing when he is really something greater. So Abraham saw God as three men, and we understand him in terms of Father, Son, and Spirit, even while we know that God is One: Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God is one YHWH. Shema, Yisrael, YHWH elohenu YHWH echad. When God reveals a part of himself, sometimes he appears as fire, sometimes as cloud, sometimes as a man, and sometimes as three men. He is still the One True God. None of these perspectives can define him.

God never does anything without purpose. He might be arational–meaning his actions might have no reason that we can know or understand–but he is never irrational. So when God appears to us as three men or as two men or as one man, then there is something we can know about him through it.

Here are the things that the character called YHWH does in these interactions with Abraham and Lot when he is referenced distinctly from the three, two, or one angels:

  • 18:1: Appears
  • 18:10: Prophesies
  • 18:13: Questions
  • 18:15: Judges
  • 18:17: Questions
  • 18:19: Prophesies
  • 18:20: Judges
  • 18:22: Stands
  • 18:26: Judges
  • 18:33: Leaves
  • 19:13: Judges
  • 19:24: Judges

Here are the things that the three men (with Abraham) or two men (with Lot) do together:

  • 18:8: Eat (three)
  • 18:9: Question (three)
  • 18:16: Rise and look (three)
  • 18:22: Turn and go (two)
  • 19:1: Come to Sodom (two)
  • 19:2: Inform (two)
  • 19:3: Turn, walk, and eat (two)
  • 19:4: Prepare to sleep (two)
  • 19:10: Rescue and protect (two)
  • 19:11: Blind attackers (two)
  • 19:12: Question and command (two)
  • 19:16: Compel to safety (two)
  • 19:17: Commands to safety

There is only one action ascribed to a singular angel who is not identified directly as YHWH:

  • 19:18: Extends mercy

In these three views of God we see three distinct roles:

  1. YHWH as investigator and judge.
  2. Three or two men together as friends, protectors, and guides.
  3. One man as giver of mercy.

How can anyone not love Torah!?

One question remains: Why were there three angels with Abraham and only two with Lot? The answer is in the pattern I showed above. Remember that every capital crime must have at least two witnesses and a judge, and the judge cannot also be a witness. So  one sperately referred to as YHWH stood back while the two angels went down to observe the crimes of Sodom and to see if any might be saved. As soon as they had brought God’s people to safety, judgment was executed.

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